With a bit of reverence, librarians carefully wind an antique library clock near the circulation desk in a 19th century temple of learning called the Providence Athenaeum.
This is one of the oldest libraries in the United States, a 19th-century library with the soul of a 21st-century rave party. In fact, the Rhode Island institution has been called a national model for civic engagement.
A bust of the Greek goddess Athena surveys her realm from the open mezzanine above the main floor. Shafts of light fall gracefully through an atrium. A wrought-iron railing circles the upper floor and bookshelves, fronted by pillars and topped with busts of writers, giving the impression of holding up the ceiling. There’s still a card catalog.
“It’s something from another age,” says Ted Widmer, who directs the John Carter Brown Library, a three-minute walk away from the “Ath,” as it’s called. “I came here as a little boy, often. I wonder a little bit if it was just the free babysitting that induced parents to come here with their little children.”
Athenaeums, after all, are social libraries, cornerstones of a community where you don’t just borrow books – you can visit cherished antiquities, hold talks, attend parties – and even bring your dog.
Athena’s Gifts, For Rich And Poor
Through good times and bad — and there have been both — the Athenaeum has maintained a stately spot on Benefit Street. From its massive doorways you’d once have seen the Providence port, bustling with sailors, monkeys and oranges on ships from India.
The Ath’s grey granite facade is austere. “It’s set up as a Greek temple would be on a great plinth, so that it has prominence,” says James Hall, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society. “Gray granite, Doric columns, peaked portico; it’s meant to say this is an important building, meant to house important things. And that’s very much what it does.”
A hundred and fifty years ago, social libraries like the Athenaeum were all the rage. The concept of the Athenaeum, a member-supported library dedicated to social improvement, predated the modern public library as we know it. The Athenaeum is one of 17 remaining membership libraries.
On the day the library opened in 1838, the citizens of Providence stood willingly for over two hours to listen to an address by one of its founders, Francis Wayland, the long-winded president of Brown University.
“God has scattered the seeds of preeminent ability as profusely among the poor as among the rich,” he announced.
Director of Programs and Public Engagement Christina Bevilacqua jokes that Wayland is her “19th-century boyfriend.” On his birthday last year, she threw a gravesite party in his honor.
“He has this kind of philosophy about the need for a library and the need to have equal access to intellectual development, because intellectual ability is spread out by God through poor and rich, doesn’t matter,” she says.
A Dark Period, Left In The Past
Keeping a fragile, 19th-century library in continuous operation for nearly two centuries has been a challenge. Providence, a city of just under 200,000, once surpassed Boston in per capita income. It invested in its cultural gems — theater companies, museums, arts and music organizations and far more. With the recession, several non-profits have gone under.
It was only a decade ago that the Ath underwent its own financial crisis. One of the Athenaeum’s antiquities was an original folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The board made the painful decision to sell it – which they did for $5 million in 2005 – to stabilize the Athenaeum’s endowment. A small contingent sued, trying to block the sale of the folio. Membership declined during the turbulence.
“It was a dark period,” says special collections curator Kate Wodehouse. “I had people tell me they could feel the heaviness in the air – that it was definitely sort of a depressed environment.”
After see-sawing through the recession, membership has rebounded, to about a thousand members and growing.
Member or not, anyone can browse or catch a program at the Ath. Devotees of Edgar Allen Poe love the story of his ill-fated romance with a local poet here — and, of course, all the Poe memorabilia. There is a Manet print of Poe’s Raven from his famous poem, for example. Children can use their own library or the 19th-century children’s books known as “The Old Juveniles.”
The Ath also offers free talks, called salons, every Friday. Begun just six years ago, they’ve brought in over 80 organizations as speakers, serving as a bridge between the Ath and Providence’s other cultural institutions – and building audience for all. Last year, the Chilean artist Magaly Ponce gave a salon for the Hark, the White Whale series, devoted to author Herman Melville. Ponce made a whale’s skeleton from chemistry bottles and jugs.
Travel and exploration are a major part of the Providence Atheneaum’s collection. Early on, the founders scraped up $500 for The Description of Egypt, 23 volumes commissioned by Napoleon after his 1798 expedition. Draftsmen, printers and architects spent two decades collaborating on these volumes.
‘It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Library’
The Ath is always looking for relevance: new ideas, new faces and new activities. “There are people like me who are not part of the old-guard culture of Providence,” says Kipp Bradford, a lecturer and design engineer at Brown. Bradford is curating three salons at the Ath this spring, linked to manufacturing and the history of Providence.
“Fundamentally, the Athenaeum is about community,” he says. “The salons are about fostering that interaction within the community and creating that exchange of ideas that you can’t have listening to a podcast, and you can’t have blogging and Twittering and Facebooking online. It’s not your grandfather’s library.”
It’s nice, though, that it looks that way. On a recent quiet Saturday, the Ath filled up with visitors old and new.
“My mom used to come here and let me wander around the bookcases. I love seeing this classic literature that I’m studying now in school,” said Melissa Bobotas, a student at Boston University. She had, on an impulse, brought along Matthew Parker, a student at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
“She asked me, ‘Hey are you up for an adventure?’ And I said, ‘Always!’ And what a beautiful adventure it’s turned out to be,” Parker said.
A beautiful adventure, it has indeed been. The Providence Athenaeum, at the corner of Benefit and College streets, is open seven days a week to the public. Athena is still there, and she welcomes all — don’t let those imposing doors fool you.